Under Pressure: Replicate Game Situations with These Drills

Use prac­tices to give your team the expe­ri­ences they need to deal with stress in matches.

Under Pressure: Replicate Game Situations with These Drills

Use prac­tices to give your team the expe­ri­ences they need to deal with stress in matches.

Imagine this: it’s the mid­dle of the fifth set, your team is down 10 – 11, and it’s your serve. Oh, and did I men­tion it’s the state cham­pi­onship and their best hit­ter has rotat­ed to the front row? 

If sit­u­a­tions like this put you on the edge of your seat, imag­ine what they do to your play­ers. High-pres­sure games cause your ath­letes to react in one of two ways — they’ll rise to the occa­sion or they’ll crumble. 

While it’s dif­fi­cult to sim­u­late the same kind of inten­si­ty in prac­tice, it’s impor­tant to pre­pare your ath­letes for these moments. Situational prac­tices and drills can help.

First to Five Drill

This one is sim­ple and fast. I sep­a­rate my ath­letes into teams and we play a few short games through­out prac­tice. To make them as real as pos­si­ble, we use a whis­tle and score­board. The first to five wins, and the los­ing team faces a con­se­quence — usu­al­ly con­di­tion­ing work, like sprints. After each five-point game, we talk about what we could have done bet­ter and what went well. At the end of prac­tice, the team with the most wins gets to choose a con­se­quence for the oth­er side.

You can also play the same way, but change the stakes to the first team to 25, and start at 20 – 20. The last five points of a match are where you need to be able to exe­cute and be aggres­sive. I also find that play­ers can stray from the game plan by the end of a match, which can end in a frus­trat­ing loss.

Why this drill?

The first five points and the last five points are both cru­cial. Getting off to a quick start is crit­i­cal in con­trol­ling the match. Many play­ers are ner­vous in those first few moments of the game, so the goal of this drill is to sim­u­late that and start to get them com­fort­able. Likewise, if your play­ers are usu­al­ly tired or los­ing focus by the end of a match, this drill can help them com­bat that in the future.

Card Drill

To start, you’ll need 12 cards. On each one, write a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion. I write mine based on what we usu­al­ly come across in a game. 

For exam­ple, the sit­u­a­tion could be that your team is up 20 – 18, you’re start­ing in rota­tion one, it’s set two, and the oppos­ing team has the serve. Each card is worth a dif­fer­ent amount of points. Give the eas­i­est sit­u­a­tions the low­est points and more to the hard­er situations. 

The drill starts with team A choos­ing a card, with­out look­ing at the sit­u­a­tion. You read the card aloud to both teams and they play out the sit­u­a­tion. If Team A wins, they get to keep the points. If Team B wins, they keep half the points the card was worth. At the end of prac­tice, whichev­er side has the most points gets to choose a con­se­quence for the oth­er side.

Why this drill?

It’s a play­er favorite! They love to see the sit­u­a­tions we pick out and how they change every time. This drill is also great because you can also cus­tomize it to fit the needs of your team. You’ll have more pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions with your ath­letes, and be bet­ter pre­pared for high-stress sit­u­a­tions. I’ve seen first-hand how this drill can have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on my team’s abil­i­ty to per­form under pressure.

Take It Further

While it’s impor­tant to sim­u­late pres­sure in prac­tice with drills like these, it’s just as impor­tant to talk to your play­ers about those sit­u­a­tions. If you’re run­ning a drill and see one side mak­ing mis­takes, stop the drill. Pull those play­ers aside and ask them about it. Why are you frus­trat­ed? What can you do to change the sit­u­a­tion? I ask my play­ers to rate the pres­sure they’re feel­ing on a scale of 1 – 5. These con­ver­sa­tions can be exact­ly what they need to refocus. 

You could also give them ideas on how to cope with that pres­sure. For exam­ple, I tell my play­ers to give each oth­er eye con­tact when they’re in hud­dles and come togeth­er after each play. And as the pres­sure mounts in a match, I know it’s impor­tant to set a good exam­ple and stay as calm as I can be. When your play­ers can tell you’re stressed, they’ll react similarly. 

Tell them to take deep breaths. I do this dur­ing match time­outs and in prac­tice. Remember, every­one makes mis­takes. Volleyball is a game of errors. I tell them it’s okay to mess up — just learn from it and make bet­ter deci­sions going forward. 

Lind­say Peter­son has been a var­si­ty head coach for eight years. She played for the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Alaba­ma, help­ing them win the DII Nation­al Cham­pi­onship in 2003. Peter­son has led her Mil­lard North High School team to the state cham­pi­onship tour­na­ment sev­en times, win­ning in 2016 and 2018. She was named one of the top 40 coach­es in the coun­try by the AVCA, and Coach of the Year by the Oma­ha World-Herald.